Largely unburdened by longstanding tradition and the weight of the past, the United States has served as a beacon of “the new” throughout its history. In the 20th century, advances in industry, technology, and social freedom transformed its landscape and culture. Change seemed to many to be the nation’s defining characteristic. Attempting to reckon with the modern world, artists developed new and radical ways of picturing it.
In the early and middle part of the century, artists experimented with different ways of incorporating the modern world into their work. Some, such as Charles Sheeler, approached the diversity of modernity’s subjects with a style derived from America’s powerful realist and landscape traditions. Others, including Marsden Hartley, who spent time abroad, were more international in outlook, infusing European-inspired abstraction and Cubism with American popular culture and concerns. The compositions of Stuart Davis incorporated the rhythms of jazz and urban life, while Arthur Dove’s abstract paintings drew inspiration from nature.
As the century progressed, many American artists made work that was completely freed from the anchor of representation. Concerned with form and materials rather than subject matter, the work of the Minimalists and their progeny was radically ambiguous. By incorporating industrial processes, materials, and techniques, as did Tony Smith, or by merging sleek geometries with an organic physicality, as did Martin Puryear and Richard Tuttle, these artists made objects that straddled the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and between craft, industry, and idea. Their work did not represent the modern world so much as engage with it on its own terms.